In the most heavily guarded space shot in NASA history, the shuttle Columbia thundered into orbit on a scientific research mission with Israel's first astronaut Thursday.
Fighter jets patrolled overhead in the moments before the midmorning liftoff. Aboard the shuttle were six U.S. astronauts and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in Israel's air force and a combat pilot.
"We had deep, beautiful, blue skies and then with this smoke coming in huge bursts, it was very, very moving," said the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon. "You know, these are our national colors."
Ayalon noted that Ramon is the son of a Holocaust survivor and has with him a drawing by a 14-year-old Jewish boy who perished at Auschwitz.
"In two generations, we're moving from the lowest ebb, the darkest point of our history, to a very great moment of excellence and achievement," the ambassador said.
It is the first time in three years that a space shuttle is not bound for the international space station or the Hubble Space Telescope.
Columbia's 16-day mission features more than 80 experiments from around the world. A pair of Israeli cameras will measure desert dust in the atmosphere. Also on board: spiders, ants, silkworms, mealworms, carpenter bees, fish embryos and rats.
About 300 Israelis traveled to Cape Canaveral for the launch along with a number of American Jews, almost all of whom carried Israeli flags.
The astronauts were surrounded by SWAT teams and helicopter patrols as they made their way to the pad. Air Force fighter jets patrolled the 35-mile no-fly zone. Boats were ordered to stay away.
Many of the security measures had been put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but were augmented because of fears that Ramon would be an inviting target to terrorists.
The 48-year-old Ramon was among the Israeli pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, according to a senior Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The countdown proved uneventful. NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said he was unaware of any credible threats against the shuttle.
At a heavily guarded Israeli reception Wednesday evening, Ramon's wife, Rona, admitted to some nervousness but added: "The most calm and relaxed person is Ilan."
Ayalon said the shuttle flight is a welcome distraction for Israelis amid the terrorist bloodshed in their country. The launch was broadcast live by Israeli TV and radio stations.
"This will take away, even for a short while, their worries and I think we are very grateful for that," he said.
Columbia's flight initially was targeted for 2001 but was repeatedly delayed. The most recent reason was the grounding of the entire space shuttle fleet last summer.
The shuttle will return to Earth on Feb. 1. NASA said security will be just as heavy for the landing.